Below is my article recently published in our church’s newsletter, with some minor edits.
Ultimate reality is that Christ is exalted above all things. During times of change – especially during times of unplanned, unsettling, and maybe even scary change – it is so important to keep our eyes focused on what does not change: Christ is exalted over all things, and nothing, and no one, can usurp His rule and authority.
Of course, this means that COVID-19 is under His rule and authority, and therefore it has come about because He decreed it to come about. Far from being a surprise to Him, it was something He ordained. Often what unsettles us is, our Lord does not always explain His reasons to us for what He decrees. We like to be in the know, but He often keeps us out of the Trinitarian loop, and so we must live by faith.
Even though we don’t always know why He does what He does, and even though changes like this one can throw us off emotionally, spiritually, and even physically, we need to be reminded He is exalted over all things.
The author of Hebrews spends much time making this point in chapter 1 of his Epistle. Really, the whole Epistle is about how Christ is “greater.” But chapter one focuses on His exaltation.
For example, it was through Christ that everything was created. Not only was it through Him that everything was created, but “He upholds the universe by the word of His power” (1:3). Certainly He is exalted as Creator and in His providence. But, there is another aspect of His exaltation having to do with Him as our Redeemer. In order for Him to achieve this ultimate exaltation, He first had to experience ultimate humiliation, which He did when He made “purification for our sins” on the cross (1:3). (There is another sense in which the crucifixion was actually an aspect of Christ’s exaltation as well. See John 12:32-34 and Isaiah 52:13.) After He made purification for our sins on the cross, the author tells us “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:4). Then, from the end of verse four through the end of the Epistle, the author of Hebrews will compare our Lord to the angels and will highlight His surpassing greatness over them.
Let me highlight some of the author’s other statements pertaining to Christ’s exaltation. In verse 5, the author quotes Psalm 2:7: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?”; Romans 1:4 suggests this declaration of Christ’s sonship occurred at His resurrection. In verse 6, we are reminded that even now, during this pandemic, the angels on high our worshiping our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. In verse 8, the author reminds us of the eternal reality of Christ’s rule over all things: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.” Christ is God, and his rule cannot be broken. In verse 12, quoting Psalm 102, we are reminded that Christ never changes. Do our circumstances change? Absolutely. Can these changes make us uncomfortable? They certainly can. When I look at my own heart, I realize that the extent to which changing circumstances impact my faith is tied directly to how much faith I put in my circumstances (rather than in my Lord). Our circumstances do, and will, change. This is not the first time, and this certainly won’t be the last time. But Christ, our Lord, never changes! He continues to rule over all things.
One final thought. His absolute rule is for us! This does not mean, as we well know by this point, that our lives are always going to be pleasant. This does not mean that He is going to orchestrate everything the way we want them to be orchestrated or the way we think they should be orchestrated. Christ will not allow Himself to become an idol we fashion to do our bidding. It does mean, however, He is working all things for our salvation, as Heidelberg Catechism 1 says. This means we will experience sanctification. It means we will draw near to Him – has your prayer life increased during this time? What about listening to sermons online and reading your Bible? It means we will learn to be content and rejoice in whatever our circumstances. “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Being content in any circumstance by Christ’s strength is what Paul meant by this verse.
As we continue to face various uncertainties during this pandemic, there is one thing that is absolutely certain: Christ is risen and is ruling over all things for our sake. No one and nothing can overthrow or thwart His rule. Let us continually set our minds on things above where Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand (Colossians 3:1-2).
“You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes . . . . You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
“We are living in uncertain times.” “The future seems so unstable.” These are refrains all around us, and not without reason. There are stories of otherwise healthy, 60-70-ish parents suddenly contracting COVID-19 and perishing. This is true of otherwise healthy 30-year-olds. Jobs have been lost, business are shutting down. Certainly this is not what most of us were anticipating 5-6 weeks ago.
The question is, are things really more uncertain now than they were before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11? From a human perspective, the short answer is no. We have just been taking “normal” for granted, because, while people around us have been experiencing personal tragedies everyday, these have been limited to their relevant circles. For example, 38.8K people lost their lives in 2019 while driving. For most of us, that is just a number, and we are thankful that our children or spouses or parents, etc. are not a part of that statistic. Those who have experienced tragedies lately tell the rest if us not to take anything for granted. “You never know how much time you have.” Uncertainty. Instability.
If we’re honest, however, without faith in and a relationship with with the one, true, and living Triune God, uncertainty and instability are the best we can hope for. Sure, very few people live their lives with the uncertainty and instability of life in the forefront of their minds. In order to function, most people set that reality aside and focus on those things that they can rely upon reasonably. Something simple as knowing that when you squeeze the toothpaste tube, toothpaste will come out, can give us peace of mind. But what happens when the one you love is taken from you? Can you, right now, guarantee that your family will all be alive when we come to the end of this pandemic? Can you guarantee you will be alive? And if not, what is your hope?
I am not speaking about fideism – confidence in our faith itself, which so often is fickle. “You just have to have faith,” some will say. But, what happens when you can’t? The God of the Old and New Testaments tells us about His faithfulness toward all who turn to Him, even when their faith falters. Faith, along with repentance, is our entrance into this relationship with the eternal, infinite, and changeless God of all things. But even faith and repentance are gifts from Him. He does not take back His gifts.
What I am not arguing is that we have any more certainty about tomorrow as Christians than non-Christians have. Above all, the Christian should know there is nothing guaranteed to us tomorrow. As James said, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . . You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” Or consider Jesus’ words: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34).
What I am arguing is that, while Christians may not have any more certainty about tomorrow, we have certainty within any situation on any day. God is sovereign. A passage I memorized early on as a seminarian is Isaiah 46:9-10:
“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all My purpose.'”
The context of the passage is not a positive one, by the way. It was not designed to make the Israelites feel good about themselves. He is actually rebuking them for their idolatry, which in this case included putting their trust in other people and political powers and idols they had made, rather than in the one, true, living God. James is arguing essentially the same point: when we make plans, we so often take God for granted and ignore Him entirely. We make our plans to increase our prosperity, failing to remember we are but a mist, and that God determines the length of our days and the success of our enterprises. This is always true.
In other words, the Christian should be the last person to take anything for granted, because we ought to be people who acknowledge our frailty and God’s sovereignty in every thought and plan and step we take in our daily lives.
Rather than seeking after our comfort, certainty, and stability here in this fallen world – a world in which pandemics can occur, because Adam sinned (and so our doctrine of sin ought to mitigate against over-confidence as well) – as Christians we ought to be pursuing God’s will every single day with renewed determination. “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills . . . .'” Or, to use Jesus’ words again: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). This is a constant, regardless of the changing circumstances, whether that change is actual or potential; it is always one or the other.
A man I admire tremendously is Eric Liddell. Some of you know his story: Scottish Olympian who refused to run his event because it fell on a Sunday, but who ran in a subsequent event, twice as long, and still won the gold; missionary to China, because he understood his life to be a race for a much more significant prize; trapped in China during WWII and sent to a Japanese internment camp in Weihsien, Shandong, China, where he would perish from a brain tumor. One of my favorite quotes of his is:
“We are all missionaries. Wherever we go we either bring people nearer to Christ or we repel them from Christ.”
While he was in the internment camp, he wrote a manuscript titled A Manual of Christian Discipleship, which you can now find as The Disciplines of the Christian Life. One of the children in the camp with Eric Liddell, David Mitchell, recalls in his remembrance at the beginning of the book: “Not only did Eric Liddell organize sports and recreation, but throughout his time in the internment camp he helped many people by teaching and tutoring. He gave special care to the older people, the weak, and the ill, for whom the conditions in camp were especially trying. He was always involved in the Christian meetings which were a part of camp life. Despite the squalor of the open cesspools, rats, flies, and disease in the crowded camp, life took on a normal routine, though without the faithful and cheerful support of Eric Liddell, many people would never have been able to manage.” By the way, Eric Liddell and another man had hour-long devotions every morning in their tiny living space through reading the Bible by the light of a peanut oil lamp and praying together.
In The Disciplines of the Christian Life, Eric Liddell defines discipleship as knowing God personally and learning from Jesus (p. 27). The one word he uses to describe discipleship is obedience, which is to the moral law, through active surrender. On page 29, he challenges us to ask ourselves:
“What am I living for – self, money, place, power? Or are my powers at the disposal of human need, dedicated to the kingdom of God on earth?
There is a direct correlation between the extent to which we are shaken by situations like this pandemic and a life focused on self, money, place, power, etc. This is true for the Christian as well as the non-Christian. Christians who are shaken by these uncertainties demonstrate that they have not been focused on God’s kingdom, but rather the things of this world; they have not been seeking God’s will and guidance each day, whatever may come, but their own ability to understand, organize, plan, and create stability, devoid of James’ qualification that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” On the other hand, far from being shaken, those who focus first on God’s kingdom and righteousness will be seeking ways to follow Christ and serve others, seeing this pandemic as a great opportunity. They will not feel like anything has been stripped away from them, because in their hearts they’ve already stripped away everything except following Christ. They will not be shaken or moved. “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1-2).
Furthermore, as Christians, we know that the things of this world are perishable, defiled, and fading. And at the same time, we know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “according to His great mercy, has caused us to be born from above to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3-4). Of course things will be uncertain here; but in heaven they are absolutely certain.
Are we in uncertain times? Yes, just as we are every single day. Let us not, as Christians, try to find our stability and certainty in our daily lives here on earth. Even worse, let us not ignore our God and Father when He allows life to cruise along uninterrupted. Let us, however, truly seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, whatever the consequences, each and every new morning. Let us repent for living for self, money, place, and power rather than following Christ and serving others. Let us keep our hope in heaven.
Are you not a Christian? I hope this pandemic is helping bring life’s uncertainty to the forefront of your mind, that you are thinking about it every day. What will you do? I hope you feel powerless in the midst of this pandemic. I also hope that you will turn to God through Christ. “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). The invitation is open. I hope you will accept it.
Sometimes, life is the pits. The Christian is not exempt from suffering and trials in this life. In fact, sometimes God’s people endure things non-Christians don’t even endure. A couple days ago, I read through Psalm 10 with my family at breakfast. Here are a couple verses:
(v.1) “Why, O LORD, do You stand far away? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?”
(v.5) “[The wicked’s] ways prosper at all times.”
I told my family that the Bible is just plain real; it’s honest about life in this fallen world. Maybe this raises other questions for you about God’s goodness or power, but we’ll tackle that some other time. (If you are really curious about, that leave a comment below letting me know.)
So, what do we do when life is the pits?
AS CHRISTIANS, WE NEED TO EMBRACE T.H.E. P.I.T.S.
T. Take Time to Read, Memorize, and Meditate on Your Bible
We need to be sure we are spending time reading, memorizing, and meditating on our Bibles. I am sure many of you have a quiet time. However, when life gets hard, it’s easy to let this special time slide. We must resist that temptation. I’d also say that we need not merely to read our Bibles. One of the psalmists wrote, “I have stored up Your Word in my heart” (Psalm 119:11). A little later he wrote, “I will meditate on Your precepts” (v. 15). Psalm 1 tells us that the person is blessed who delights “in the law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night” (v. 2).
If we read our Bibles in a rushed manner, while focusing mainly on our problems, this is not going to help us. When I memorize Scripture, I find I have to slow down to process what it is saying; I have to focus on the portion of the Bible I am memorizing, or I simply won’t be able to memorize it. I struggle more with memorizing the Bible when I have many things on my mind.
Of course, meditation on Scripture by definition means it is our sole focus.
H. Ensure a Healthy Diet
Whether it’s depression or a stressful situation, we need to be sure we are consuming a healthy diet. Most of us don’t appreciate how much the foods and drinks we consume impact us, especially the foods to which we most naturally turn when life is hard. When our bodies are impacted negatively, it can have a significant impact on us spiritually as well. We are psycho-somatic beings; we are body and soul, and the two impact each other.
It is natural, given the relationship between body and soul, that getting exercise is important as well. There are many benefits to regular exercise. Here’s an article by the Mayo Clinic listing seven of them. Two of the benefits they list are improved mood and better sleep. Both are critical when we are in a rough patch.
As we move on, each of the letters of “P.I.T.S.” have to do with different aspects of prayer, though they extend beyond prayer to other actions as well. This part of the acronym also roughly corresponds to the more familiar acronym “A.C.T.S.” (For those who aren’t familiar with this acronym, it stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.)
P. Praise God
When we pray, especially when life is the pits, we need to begin by praising God. Take the time to meditate in your prayers on Who God is. Later we will thank Him for what He has done and is doing. But, for now, take time worshipping God. For example: “I praise You, Lord, for You do not change. I can always count on You. Because You do not change, Your love for me cannot change. Therefore, though it doesn’t feel like it right now, I praise You, because Your love is unchanging. As it says in the Bible: ‘Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, Who does not change like shifting shadows’ (James 1:17).” Be specific in your praise of God. If you don’t know how to describe God (His attributes, which He has given to us in the Bible), the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question and answer 4, is a good place to start. You can find it here. But, notice, I included Scripture in the sample prayer. That’s always a safe place to turn for guidance in prayer.
(Let me also say quickly, what I am writing here is not law. If you mix praise with thanksgiving at this point, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, as I began writing the first draft of the previous paragraph, I realized I had quickly moved from praise to thanksgiving. It’s easy to do. Whether you begin with praise or thanksgiving, or some mixture of the two, you are beginning your prayers by focusing on God and His goodness and love toward you. That is what matters.)
However, praising God is not something we do just in our prayer life. We do so, more foundationally, when we gather with our brothers and sisters to worship God. As much as we do not need to neglect our quiet times, the Bible commands us not to forsake the gathering together with one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). This gathering is not limited to corporate worship on Sunday, though it is critical to make that a priority. It also includes small groups, meeting a brother or sister for coffee, etc. We can also praise God in our speech with those we encounter throughout the day. When I used to ask my grandfather how he was, he always responded with “Praise God.” It was a carry-over from the typical Arabic greeting (my grandfather was a Lebanese Christian, as was my other family from the area.) This may seem small, but it is a place to begin. What other ways can you simply work praise into your speech and conversation with people?
We begin our prayers by focusing on the God Who is worthy of all our praise, Who sits enthroned in majesty in heaven. But before we move onto ourselves, we can intercede for others. Intercession is important and helpful during those rough times, because we cannot intercede on others in any specific way if we are only thinking about ourselves. We have to get to know others and care for them in order to intercede for them. Furthermore, as we do so, we are reminded that we are not alone in our struggles. Maybe as we ask others how we can pray for them, they will ask the same of us, and we can bear one another’s burdens. So, intercession means that we pray for others, and partly how we do so is to ask others how we can be praying for them, or just listening to them as they talk about what’s going on with them. We can also pray more broadly for the needs of the world and the broader church, especially the persecuted church.
There is another facet to intercession. We are also reminded that Christ is interceding for us. “Christ Jesus, Who died – more than that, Who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). Actually, all of Romans 8 is a great place to turn when life is hard. But, here I just want to remind you that Christ knows you intimately, knows every detail of what is going on with you, and is not ignoring your situation. He is constantly interceding for you, even as we confess our sins to the Father. And if the Father is going to hear anyone’s prayers, it must be the Son’s prayers.
T. Thank God
After we’ve praised God and interceded on behalf of others, we can thank God for all He has done for us, is doing for us, will do for us, and for hearing our prayers, whether for ourselves or for others in our intercession. Again, like in our praise and intercession, let’s be specific. Depending on where you are, thinking of specific things may take time. Take that necessary time. When we make the attempt to think of specific reasons to thank God, the list grows quite long. If you cannot think of anything for which to thank God in your current circumstances, then I would suggest you might be struggling with bitterness. Repent of this, and ask God to help your heart soften toward Him. He is always loving, good, kind, slow to anger, etc. toward us, and therefore the problem does not lie with Him. In His love, goodness, kindness, patience, etc., He will help you. (See Exodus 34:6-7 for these attributes, along with others, all of which God uses to describe Himself to Moses.)
S. Bring allyour supplications to God
Finally, once we have praised God specifically, brought specific intercessions to Him on behalf of others, thanked Him for the specific ways He has and is demonstrating His love, goodness, kindness, etc. toward us, it’s time to bring our supplications to God.
We are not saving this part til last because the Bible frowns on us bothering God with our requests. “Cast all your anxieties on Him, since He is concerned for you” (1 Peter 5:7). All of your anxieties. There is none too small to escape His loving, compassionate gaze, and there is none too large for His wisdom, provision, and power. And, just like with our praises, intercessions, and thanksgivings, we need to be specific with our supplications. This is an act of faith.
The reason we wait until this point under normal circumstances to bring our supplications is to turn our hearts toward God and others first. By praising Him, we are reminded that He has all this under control, and He is intending it for our good (Romans 8:28). By thanking Him for specific things, we are reminded that He truly does care for us. In all of this, our circumstances should begin to shrink in comparison to His majesty, and our confidence in His willingness and ability to hear and answer us should grow.
This post is intended to give you practical steps to take when life gets hard. It is not intended to present a quasi-stoic response to the difficult things in life. It is not intended to suggest we should never grieve. Christians must grieve at the proper time, and we must remember that Christ grieves with us. We must also remember that we are not immune to medical ailments and conditions – like depression – that need medical treatment. I am not qualified to offer you medical advice, and if you think you are depressed, or suffering some other medical issue, I would encourage you to seek your doctor’s advice. Nonetheless, there is a spiritual component to our suffering, and that is what I’m addressing here – how do we re-orient our spiritual side toward praising God when we encounter hard times?
Because, sometimes life is the pits for God’s people. When it is, will you embrace and practice T.H.E. P.I.T.S.?